#363- The Killing Fields

Quick recap: As I may have mentioned one or two times before, war is hell. Journalist Sydney Schanberg is momentarily stuck in Cambodia during the mass murder cleansing campaign ‘Year Zero’ along with his friend and translator, Dith Pran. While Schanberg is eventually rescued, Pran, a native Cambodian, is left to fend for himself in a country now hostile to its citizens. OH! AND THIS IS A STORY BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.

I made the mistake of Googling ‘The Killing Fields’ . Don’t do that.

Fun (?) fact: Haing S. Ngor, the actor who played Dith Pran has a tragic story that almost rivals the one told in the movie. His wife died during childbirth during the Cambodian cleansing campaign because even though her husband was a doctor, seeking his help would mean the Khmer Rouge finding out about him and murdering him. Ngor eventually escaped to America and was chosen to play Pran. He was later murdered in what many people believe to be a revenge killing for speaking out against the Cambodian atrocities.

My thoughts: Time to let my American ignorance shine through as I admit to knowing next to nothing about Cambodia’s history before this movie. I had heard of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge but I had no idea how evil it all was. The killing Fields is a tough movie to stomach for several reasons, but for me there is a lot of guilt and anger that this piece of history was never discussed or mentioned in school. As evidenced from this movie, though, Americans alive while this happened weren’t aware of the atrocity either. The final scene of the movie explains that as of 1984, the film’s release, Cambodia was still recovering. Even today, there are remains that have yet to be identified.

History lesson aside, This movie was just as powerful as I expected it to be. The Killing Fields is told in two parts: the first part is about Sydney Schanberg and his crew trying to make it out of Cambodia and the second part focuses on Dith Pran’s struggle to survive as he is left behind. As much as I liked Schanberg, the performance felt a little heavy handed at times. It never crossed over into him being the victim thankfully but it got close several times. Pran’s part of the film had my full attention. The real Pran coined the term ‘Killing Fields’ when he stumbled into a body of water lined with thousands of bodies, people murdered from the regime. That scene has stuck with me several days later.

What I appreciate most about this movie is that it never feels sanctimonious or preachy about the plight of the Cambodians. The story focuses on these two friends and how they navigated such a terrible time in our world’s history. Looking at the suffering close up really drives home how horrible it all was and I was better able to grasp the atrocities. The conflict reminds me a lot of Syria and the images shown daily of the refugees and dead children. Will we hear of stories like this in 10 years and feel the same shame and regret that we didn’t pay attention sooner? Time will tell.

Final review: 4/5

Up next: Ikiru

 

 

#334- Night and Fog

Quick recap: It’s a documentary about the Holocaust.

This probably won’t be a surprise, but don’t expect much humor in this review. Hopefully your expectations weren’t that high to begin with.

Fun (?) fact: Director Alain Resnais was very careful to not use the word ‘Jew’ when referring to victims of the holocaust because he wanted to create something that condemned genocide altogether. He felt that using the term, although true, might lead people to believe the Holocaust was an isolated event when in fact, could easily happen to any group of people.

My thoughts:  It has recently come to my attention that I’m not the most fun person to be around. That’s not to say I don’t have other great qualities, but I don’t think ‘bubbly’ comes to mind when most people describe me. Case in point, I chose to spend my spring break watching a film about the Holocaust and my Friday night recapping the horrible things I saw.

For a documentary about the Holocaust, this was every bit as sad and horrifying as I expected it to be, and yet there were still parts I found shocking. As the narrator said, it’s unfathomable. Night and Fog was filmed in 1955, roughly 10 years after the war ended. Resnais interspersed images of the abandoned concentration camps with real footage of the prisoners and even then everything felt surreal and almost unbelievable. As the narrator says, images and film can only show so much. It is impossible to truly understand the constant fear and apprehension felt by everyone.

For a little 30 minute film, there were so many points touched on. Resnais said he wanted to make the film as an allegory for the situation going on with France and Algeria at the time, but that sentiment could be applied for any conflict. It’s depressing to think that lessons still haven’t been learned. Genocides have happened since then, not to mention the gradual embrace of the Nazi party again. It took everything to not turn away when the images of bulldozers pushing bodies into mass graves came on the screen, but it’s something that needs to be seen. Even in 1955, Resnais was already worried that people were becoming complacent again. The narrator (whose script was written by Jean Cayrol, a concentration camp survivor), mentions people taking pictures in front of crematoriums and selling the images as postcards. The most frustrating part of the film, though, was to see the SS officers deny any wrongdoing and any responsibility whatsoever. It is alluded to the fact that so many of these camps are situated just outside of big cities, implying entire nations of people who knew what was going on. And still, it happened. And still, it continues to happen.

Final review: 5/5. Essential viewing.

Up next: High Noon

 

#302- Braveheart

Quick recap: A mostly fictitious tale of William Wallace, the man who (maybe?) freed Scotland from England.

Fun (?) fact: ‘Braveheart’ was actually Robert the Bruce’s nickname, not William Wallace’s. He, unlike Wallace, is considered a Scottish hero and many Scots were angry with the way he was portrayed in the movie.

Come to think of it, they probably don’t care for Groundskeeper Willie either

My thoughts: Oh, Braveheart, my first ‘grown up’ movie I fell in love with. Speed was actually first, but there was just something more mature about a hunky, shirtless Mel Gibson than a bus that couldn’t slow down. Knowing what I know now about the film’s take on historical events as well as what I’ve learned about Mel Gibson, I worried that Braveheart wouldn’t have the same impact as it did on 11 year old Me. Fortunately, it totally holds up.

I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison, but in my mind, Braveheart and Shawshank Redemption are always grouped together. Both are ‘epics’ and both are universally loved. Despite the MANY historical inaccuracies, it was hard not to fall in love with Braveheart all over again. It’s an uplifting film (um…besides all the blood and torture) like Shawshank ,and a message that any toddler could grasp. And as much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s the kind of movie that sticks with you long after it’s over. Mel Gibson may be an ass in real life, but he is a hell of an actor. He absolutely nails the role of William Wallace. It’s those blue eyes, I think. How does he do it?

Treating Braveheart like a folktale (think Robin Hood) is the best way to go about enjoying this movie. William Wallace is larger than life and there are several nods to this in the film. I was a little put off by the fact that Wallace essentially freed Scotland because his wife was murdered but I think the point is that the desire was in him all along. I’m glad that it still holds up, over 20 years later, even if it is mostly not true.

Final review: 4/5

Up next: Faces

#295- Gandhi

Quick recap: It’s about the life of Gandhi.

Look. I'm going to do my best to not make a bunch of Clone High references but with a movie like this, sometimes it's what you have to do.

Look. I’m going to do my best to not make a bunch of Clone High references but with a movie like this, sometimes it’s what you have to do.

Fun (?) fact: I suppose I should be embarrassed for not knowing this beforehand, but Pakistan only became a country in the 1900s. I’ve always thought the whole India/Pakistan thing had been around for thousands of years.

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My thoughts: This won’t come as a surprise to many, but the independence of India was not a topic taught in depth in public school. I’m sure we learned about Gandhi at some point, but only as a footnote of important leaders. It’s a shame because I could’ve really used some context while watching this movie. I really enjoyed it, of course. It’s masterfully done. But there’s this nagging suspicion I have that the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and I should be careful in using it to understand such an important figure in the 20th century.

First of all, as stated above, Gandhi the film is perfectly done and if it were a fictional story, would receive my highest rating. Ben Kingsley is amazing and when researching photos of the real Gandhi, I was surprised by how much the two favor each other. The cinematography is also gorgeous. There were so many beautiful shots, from the scenes of the train crossing the country to the camera panning through the crowds watching Gandhi speak. It was all so beautiful. I especially loved that director Richard Attenborough attempted to shoot many scenes in the same places they occurred. India is a beautiful country and Gandhi really captures that.

As for the movie’s main subject, I just don’t know what to think. According to the film, Gandhi was practically a saint and (almost) singlehandedly brought about revolution and independence. It’s a neat story, but the truth is considerably more complicated. I’m inspired to learn more now to get a sense of what really happened and I love when movies do that to me. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing this list, actually. At the same time, I don’t want to get bogged down in too many of Gandhi’s faults. Leaders are flawed because humans are flawed. But even though we know this fundamental fact, people are still desperate for a true hero. Remember Ken Bone, the guy in the sweater who asked Trump a question during the debate? We LOVED that guy for about 15 minutes, until someone found his history. Then we became uncomfortable with the hero we created and we moved on to someone else. There needs to be a balance between hero worship and jaded apathy towards those thrust into the spotlight. Despite the less than glamorous details, Gandhi is seen as a promotor of non violent resistance, which I think has its place in such a turbulent time such as this. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn, but not stop too long to worship.

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Final review: 5/5

Up next: Reservoir Dogs